Working with children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour: evidence based guidance for professionals working with children and young people

Guidance to support professionals who work with children and young people to identify, prevent and mitigate harm caused by children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour


From an early age, children’s social and emotional development is shaped by their relationships with those around them.

Parents and carers normally have the most significant role in their lives, but the wider family, friends, teachers, the community – as well as professionals such as youth workers or health professionals – also have roles to play in helping children grow up to be confident and responsible adults.

The presence of positive relationships in the lives of young people is vital to their health and wellbeing. Having good quality relationships can help us to live longer and happier lives, and contributes to positive mental health and wellbeing. Increasingly those relationships for young people occur both online as well as offline, or with offline aspects of the relationship augmented by interactions in digital spaces.

Like other areas of development, such as motor skills and language acquisition, the development of sexual identity begins from birth and continues through childhood and adolescence.

Sexual thoughts, feelings and behaviours are a natural part of human development. Sexual exploration, experimentation and expression are typical parts of child and adolescent development and are important in shaping each child’s sexual identity and their understanding of healthy and appropriate boundaries and intimate relationships in adulthood. All children and young people have a right to learn about their growing bodies, relationships, sexuality, sexual health and parenthood in ways that are appropriate to their age, stage of development and gender.

The early teenage years are a time of significant physical, emotional and developmental change for most children. They are also a time when adolescents are starting to understand their own individual sexuality. It can be a period when sexual drives may be acute, but some young people may struggle to understand their own and others’ sexuality and relational and sexual boundaries. Rule breaking, sensation seeking and lack of consequential thinking are relatively common during the early teenage years. This may impact on sexual choices, as will the ways many young people now do this exploration (e.g. disinhibition and misjudging of context that can occur when expressing sexuality with peers online). Much of the research in the UK and in other jurisdictions suggests that at least around one third of all harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) towards children and young people is committed by children and young people (Expert Group, 2020).

Children and young people need adults around them to promote an understanding of what constitutes healthy relationships. This guidance is intended for practitioners and service leads who work with children, young people and their families and aims to provide a deeper understanding of how to respond to all forms of harmful sexual behaviour displayed by those under the age of 18. It defines what harmful sexual behaviour is, and identifies a continuum of responses to children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour. This continuum ranges from early community- based identification and support with low-risk behaviours, to assessment, intervention and intensive work with those children and young people who present the highest risk behaviours and needs. It also covers services available for children and young people across Scotland, key resources in relation to assessment and interventions and information on suitable services for working with children and young people where sexual behaviour is a concern.

An annex provides more detail and practice examples in relation to responses to behaviour across the continuum.



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